“Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive . . . More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often without realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many.”
– Harold Pinter, Nobel Prize winning speech 2005.
The Caretaker is not an easy evening’s entertainment but its seemingly ordinary events, based on a casual observation by Harold Pinter, take on profound significance.
Sitting four rows from the front on opening night at The Gate theatre a definitive understanding of this play seemed as elusive as the dramatic truth Pinter spoke about in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 2005.
Artistic director Michael Colgan’s continuous staging of Pinter’s work over the years belies his self-stated reputation for being only interested in getting bums on seats. The Caretaker, which is anything but a popular and readily accessible play, is The Gate’s first Pinter production since the playwright’s death in 2008.
The stage is a cluttered bedroom occupied by three characters: Davies – played by Michael Feast – is a racist vagabond who is offered lodgings by two brothers, Aston and Mick. Aston has come to Davies’ aid after he witnessed him being attacked in a café.
Marty Rea plays Aston, the generous brother who has suffered from a nervous breakdown and spent some time in an asylum. With this difficult role, Rea shows his versatility, his performance is pent up, understated and excellently pitched.
The other brother is Mick, a builder and landlord played by Garrett Lombard, who is a regular on The Gate stage, having recently played Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Like any master, there’s more going on than what you first pick up. The audience must strain to catch it all. Pinter’s signposts are subtle and easily missed; most clues only make sense in hindsight.
Theatrical effects serve to heighten the drama. Lights (Mark Jonathan) dim at crucial moments for emphasis and director Toby Frow has stuck rigidly to the script in this respect.
The drama opens with Mick alone on stage, sitting in darkness. There’s a palpable criminal menace off him and his character is elusive. Are his offers of a bed and the position of caretaker to Davies genuine? Or is he just mirroring his brother? Could he perhaps be the alter ego of Aston? If so, Pinter’s Caretaker is a definite influence on Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.
Aston is full of quiet, fidgety contemplation throughout. He plans to build the shed out the back but never gets around to it. He is constantly fiddling with a plug, the plug signifies his past: he received electro convulsive treatment as a minor in the asylum and he hasn’t been right since. As the lights dim on act 2 he tells us this in a stuttering yet poetic speech.
Pinter’s work is minimalist. It is a style where all elements of the play: characterisation, plot, language, acting, direction, sound (Denis Clohessy) and design (Francis O’Connor) only provide the bare minimum to set forth the action.
Finding plot amidst such sparseness is difficult.
If there is one, it’s that Aston welcomes Davies into the flat and we then watch a gradual souring of their relationship as Davies abuses the hospitality offered him by his host.
Davies has lost his job, his place in the world and his identity. He’s homeless and goes under two names: Davies and Jenkins. He claims he can get his identity back if only he could get to Sidcup – which is an old army base town, hinting at military service. Sidcup is a dramatic device much like Beckett’s Godot, dominant and talked about in the play but never actually seen or realised.
For once things are coming Davies way: accommodation, job offers and a few bob. But he tries to play the two brothers off against each other. He just isn’t able to subdue his prejudices and his nastiness eventually surfaces when he is told about Aston’s past. He goads him about it, leaving the audience wondering whether we should sympathise with him at all. What is it that makes Aston take pity on this man in the café?
Pinter is a playwright who articulated the loneliness of the ostracised in society; his characters are those forgotten by the world. Pinter is attuned to the ambiguity of daily language and knows we aren’t the verbose, concise communicators that literature would have it. His characters aren’t full of clairvoyance; they’re as confused as we are. Succumbing to this uncertainty, with the characters, is paramount to enjoying Pinter’s world.
When I left the play I was determined to bridge the chasm between my lack of understanding of what I saw at the time and the little stirrings, half-ideas and wild guesses that continued long after this compelling drama had ceased on stage. To do so I took to the programme notes and within those pages there was an interesting discovery: Pinter had taken the scene almost straight from real life.
His theatre is often sparked from a single image and The Caretaker was the same.
Michael Billington, theatre critic and Pinter’s biographer, tells of the plays origins: “At the time he (Pinter) wrote the play, he and Vivien (his wife) were living in a modest, first floor flat in Chiswick High Road. The house itself was owned by a builder whom they hardly ever saw. But it was also occupied by the builder’s brother: a man who had a history of mental illness but also a figure of instinctive kindliness who had a phone specially installed for the Pinter’s and who gave temporary shelter to a homeless vagrant. Pinter said how one day he paused on the stairs and looked into a room where he saw these two men engaged in totally different activities: ‘the tramp rooting around in a bag and the other man looking out of the window and simply not speaking…A kind of moment frozen in time that left a very strong impression.”
Immersive and challenging, it is theatre rooted in three ordinary, disaffected and indefinable characters. It speaks to our collective humanity. Like these characters, we are all distracted by our own preoccupations: they’re our lives.
Put bums on seats as this first Irish production of The Caretaker should leave many curious about Harold Pinter. Perhaps that was Colgan’s intention.
The Caretaker runs until March 21st.
March 19th – The Gate Lab hosts an interview with Artistic Director Michael Colgan about his friendship and long-time collaboration with Harold Pinter.